On Wednesday the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Marrama v. Citizens Bank of Massachusetts. The Supreme Court answered the question of whether an individual has an absolute right to convert a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case to a Chapter 13 "wage earner" bankruptcy case or whether that right can be conditioned on the absence of bad faith. This blog is focused on business bankruptcy issues, but knowing how the Supreme Court interprets the Bankruptcy Code on one issue can sometimes help in understanding how the Court may approach other issues.

The Core Issue. In Marrama, the Supreme Court interpreted the following language in Section 706(a) of the Bankruptcy Code:

The debtor may convert a case under this chapter to a case under chapter 11, 12, or 13 of this title at any time, if the case has not be converted under section 1112, 1208, or 1307 of this title. Any waiver of the right to convert a case under this subsection is unenforceable.

Many courts had read this language to give a debtor an absolute right to convert a case from Chapter 7 to another bankruptcy chapter, even if the case might thereafter be reconverted back to Chapter 7. (Grounds for such reconversion could include previous bad faith or other misconduct of the debtor while in Chapter 7.)  The ability to convert can make a big difference to debtors because Chapter 7 cases always involve the appointment of a trustee to take possession of the debtor’s non-exempt assets for liquidation, unlike cases under Chapters 11, 12, and 13 in which the debtor can often retain property and pay creditors over time.  

The Court’s Reasoning. The Supreme Court decided that another provision, Section 706(d), limited this right to convert by requiring that the debtor must be able to be a debtor under the other chapter of choice. Section 706(d) provides: "Notwithstanding any other provision of this section, a case may not be converted to a case under another chapter of this title unless the debtor may be a debtor under such chapter.” In Marrama, the Supreme Court held that a debtor who had acted in bad faith by concealing assets while in Chapter 7 could not qualify as a debtor under Chapter 13 because the Chapter 13 case would be dismissed "for cause" under Section 1307 of the Bankruptcy Code. The Supreme Court summarized its reasoning this way:

In practical effect, a ruling that an individual’s Chapter 13 case should be dismissed or converted to Chapter 7 because of prepetition bad-faith conduct, including fraudulent acts committed in an earlier Chapter 7 proceeding, is tantamount to a ruling that the individual does not qualify as a debtor under Chapter 13. That individual, in other words, is not a member of the class of ‘honest but unfortunate debtor[s]’ that the bankruptcy laws were enacted to protect. See Grogan v. Garner, 498 U. S., at 287. The text of §706(d) therefore provides adequate authority for the denial of his motion to convert.

A "Plain Language" Dissent. Interestingly, Justice Alito, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia and Thomas, dissented. He found the majority’s interpretation of these sections to be strained and inconsistent with the plain meaning of the statutory language. As such, he believed that a debtor had an absolute right to convert out of Chapter 7 even if the case were subject to being reconverted after further proceedings.

Impact On Business Bankruptcy? It’s hard to see much direct impact on business bankruptcy cases from the decision, except perhaps in the very rare circumstance when a corporate debtor files a Chapter 7 but later seeks to convert the case to Chapter 11. However, the fact that four justices dissented on a "plain language" basis may be noteworthy. Many of the changes made by the recent Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (also known as BAPCPA), including to business provisions, added language that appears to limit the exercise of discretion by bankruptcy judges. Perhaps the more interesting question, then, is whether the Marrama decision signals that the Supreme Court might consider loosening, if only slightly, the prevailing "plain language" interpretation of the Bankruptcy Code and allow judges to exercise more discretion than might otherwise be indicated by the language of the statute alone. Given that BAPCPA is less than 18 months old, we’ll probably have to wait a few years for an answer to that one.

Other Commentators On The Decision. Finally, when the Supreme Court issues a bankruptcy decision, a number of commentators write to share their perspectives. Scott Riddle of the Georgia Bankruptcy Law Blog was one of the first to report on the decision. Steve Jakubowski of The Bankruptcy Litigation Blog has an interesting post. In addition, John Pottow, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, has an insightful post on the Credit Slips blog, as does Todd Zywicki, a professor at the George Mason University School of Law, over on The Volokh Conspiracy.